If you couldn’t tell by now, due to my lack of a proper place to sit down and really analyze an album I’m not too familiar with, I’m just kind of rattling on about albums I am all too familiar with. There really is no album I can think of that I am quite as well familiar with as Beck’s “hit”, “groundbreaking”, “doggy” album, Odelay:
In my rather fuzzy memory of my early teen years, I can distinctly remember The Presidents Of The United States Of America being the first band I ever loved, and though I’m sure there are other bands I really dug in the interim (I certainly remember briefly being into Collective Soul), I would have to say that Beck is probably the second artist I really got into, no questions asked. It’s hard to explain just how this album transcended all others to make me fall instantly in love with it, but that’s not going to stop me from trying!
For one, stop me if I’m completely off the mark here, but Beck’s overall sound (at least before he plunged head-first into a scientology-fueled staleness from which escape may be impossible) was entirely unique at the time. I might just be getting around to listening to 90′s music, but if there’s a clear musical influence on Beck’s style I have yet to hear it. The best I’ve been able to come up with in terms of a definition of the sound for Odelay is that he has taken a variety of the bare elements of other genres and styles and periods and warped them into something entirely different and very definitely “Beck” sounding. The influence for this, of course, came not from music but from his grandfather, Al Hansen, who I guess invented an art movement called Fluxus which involves doing strange performance pieces with mundane objects. I don’t know much about performance art, but taking the mundane and making a unique experience about it is what this era of Beck’s sound is all about, and it’s fitting that it should be, because the entire album was made as a dedication to Al since he died shortly after Beck hit it big with his “one hit wonder” track “Loser” from Mellow Gold. Though Beck could have easily (and justifiably) created this album as a dark dire indulgent dour dirge of depression (ok I will stop practicing alliteration in this blog), he captured the spirit of Fluxus and turned it into 13 amazing songs that combine to form a kind of super-album that pretty much everyone should have heard by now.
The genre of “rock” is first to be thrown into the blender, with the unbearably recognizable riff of “Devil’s Haircut”. The instrumentation of this track really sounds like a bunch of disparate tracks (samples of instruments in actuality) just loosely thrown together to create a rock song unlike any other. The vocals are also a thing, as they move from being Beck’s trademark congested deadpan tone to distorted screaming at the end. The lyrics, well I don’t have glasses thick enough to try and tell you what Beck means by “Devil’s Haircut”. It’s great, that’s all.
The second song is “Hotwax”, which can possibly be described as a country song given the rap treatment with a bit of spanish flair. Unfortunately, I can’t understand the Spanish words in the chorus due to the backup vocals being done through a distortion pedal, but I’ve been told that it translates to “I’m a broken record machine, and I’ve got bubblegum on the brain”. Self-explanatory really. The end of the song features a dialogue between a girl and the “Enchanting Wizard Of Rhythm”, and I only WISH I knew the story behind that. I, unfortunately, am not hip to such things, I merely enjoy them in bemusement.
“Lord Only Knows”, another country song melted like so much wax and formed into something altogether different and endearing, features the album’s title as well as some great lyrics.
You only got one finger left
And it’s pointing at the door
If you didn’t notice by now, Beck uses a very distinct style in this album for his lead guitar playing. I believe it’s mainly achieved from being the cheapest guitars possible (the old Sears brand Silvertone guitars that are so popular with the indie kids) and some crazy effects that I have yet to decipher, on top of which, Beck’s training on lead guitar is “just play whatever”. Again, the end of the song features some interesting stuff, Beck recites one of the many little joke poems that his grandfather used to tell him in the lines:
Going down to Houston
Do the hot-dog dance
Going down to Houston
To get me some pants
Then we get to my personal favorite song, the amazing dirty lounge song from Hell, “The New Pollution”. Everything from the catchy beat to the various hooks playing on every instrument makes this song one of the greatest, and the video is my personal favorite from Beck as well (a close second is almost any of the videos Steve Hanft did for him on Mellow Gold). There’s not much to explain about this song, it’s just amazing.
“Derelict”, however, took me a long time to really come to grips with. It’s like exploring a magical land of LSD-induced mayhem and then suddenly getting dragged into a bad trip with this nightmare-fuel song. Still, I’ve never done drugs so I’ve been able to appreciate this song for what it is, a derelict song about a derelict. Good enough!
“Novacane” is a brilliant song that I can only guess is about drug use. It’s got an ending that occasionally physically tickles my ears to listen to on headphones, it’s the strangest thing. There’s this whirring frequency that gets pulled chromatically down a scale and it always sends a movement down my spine. I have never experienced that from any other song.
“Jack-Ass” is another favorite, as it’s kind of like Beck’s spin on a Johnny Cash style country song, at least, that’s how it’s sung. The video features Willie Nelson as some kind of wizard guy too, how rad can you get? There must be something to Beck that all artists/musicians can detect, because he has been admired by other artists ranging all the way up to Big John himself, since he covered one of the Stereopathetic Soul Manure songs for his own late release albums.
Then we have the “big hit” of the album, “Where It’s At”, another “loungy” song, but given the rap treatment and some excellent party-atmosphere lyrics. Of course, the kind of party advertised in this song you’re likely to come away from with at least some kind of venereal disease, so party-goer beware! I used to know the sources of all the samples in this song, until I stopped caring.
Ahhh, “Minus”, the rock-out portion of the album. I shouldn’t have to tell you by now that I’m a big fan of distorted bass, and it’s brought hard in this particular track. There’s nothing you really need to know other than that.
“Sissyneck” is also kind of a country song, particularly with its chorus denoting “I’ve got a stolen wife, and a rhinestone life, and some good ol’ boys”. The only thing I really want to say about this song is that I always had a weird interpretation of the line “I’ve got a beard that would disappear if I’m dressed in leather”, and if you push me for it instead of trying to guess for yourself, I guess I can tell you what it is.
The next track, “Readymade”, is another one of those I struggled with. It’s mainly because it’s downbeat and downcast and just a downer all around, and this is supposed to be a party album. I guess this is a sort of Late Album Slowdown, but the album picks up quite a bit after this track with “High 5 (Rock The Catskills)”, a feverish distortion fest where you’ll be lucky to understand ANY of the words, but it’s still a great experience. The fun sounds from “Novacane” make a cameo in this track, followed by some hilarious samples.
Finally, we have the one survivor from the “dour dire d’etc.” sound of the unfertilized embryo of Odelay, “Ramshackle”. Really, I am not sure I could take an entire album of music this dour (actually I probably could, being an outspoken Leonard Cohen fan), but this track is a very well fitting end to a work of art such as Odelay. Really, though I never expected Beck to repeat the successful range of sounds and ideas presented in this album, I was really hoping that he wouldn’t sink as low as working with Dangermouse, the “Timbaland of cool music” as I call him. Still, that’s another writeup for another time. Odelay is a great artist at his best, and no amount of scientology is going to change that.